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An overview of the sources


Laocoön

The quality of the ancient sources for the history of the period covered by this website (323-30 B.C.) varies considerably. The years before and after the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. are some of the best documented in ancient history, but earlier on, no detailed historical account has survived to help us understand the establishment of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the early 3rd century B.C. Therefore, to describe the sources, it makes sense to split the period into seven different sections:

  1. Greek history from 323 to 220 B.C.
  2. Roman history from 323 to 220 B.C.
  3. Greek and Roman history from 219 to 146 B.C.
  4. Greek and Roman history from 145 to 71 B.C.
  5. Roman history from 70 to 30 B.C.
  6. Other literary sources
  7. Documents

This overview mentions only the most important sources, selected from the complete list of sources and translations (which is also available sorted by date). Throughout the overview, there are links to the Wikipedia entry for each author.


1. Greek history from 323 to 220 B.C.

Until the end of the 4th century B.C., we have a valuable guide to the complicated struggles between the successors of Alexander the Great, provided by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. Modern scholars tend to dismiss Diodorus as an unimaginative compiler, but in books 18-20 of his Historical Library he has derived much of his material from a major history of the period, written by Hieronymus of Cardia, which is now lost.

The manuscripts of Diodorus stop at the end of the fourth century B.C., and at this point the surviving sources become very patchy. For a continuous account, we have to go to the Epitome of Pompeius Trogus by the later Latin writer Justinus, but his account is relatively short, and it can be confusing for a modern reader to follow the sequence of the events that he describes.

In the absence of a satisfactory continuous account, the Parallel Lives of Plutarch provide an important insight into some of the most influential characters of the period: Demetrius, Pyrrhus, Aratus, Agis and Cleomenes. It has often been pointed out that Plutarch was a biographer, not a historian - but he consulted a wide selection of contemporary histories when he wrote his Lives.

The vibrant intellectual and social life of Athens during the first part of this period is illustrated by many anecdotes in later writers, especially in the Deipnosophists of Athenaeus, and in the lives written by Diogenes Laertius of eminent philosophers such as Epicurus and Zenon. The voluminous writings of these philosophers, and the contemporary historians, have all perished; but we can still read a good selection of Hellenistic poetry, including the comedies of Menander (one of his plays, Dyskolos, has survived complete), the Idylls of Theocritus, the Phaenomena of Aratus, and the epigrams of Posidippus.


2. Roman history from 323 to 220 B.C.

Down to 293 B.C., there is a full account of Roman history, year by year, in Books 9 and 10 of Livy. Unfortunately, Books 11-20 of Livy's great history, covering the remaining years down to 220 B.C., have been lost; and for this period we have to rely on much briefer accounts. Two Greek historians shed some light on particular episodes: some long excerpts have survived from Books 19 and 20 of the Roman Antiquities by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, which describe the war against Pyrrhus; and in Book 1 of Polybius there is a summary of the First Punic War.

Otherwise, we have to rely on the Periochae (summaries) of the lost books of Livy, and on the short accounts of the period in two later writers: Books 8-12 of Dio Cassius, as summarised by Zonaras, and Book 4 of Orosius.

Although by this time Greek historians such as Timaeus were taking an interest in the Romans and writing about their conquest of Italy, the Romans themselves had not started to write much either in poetry or in prose, and only a few scraps of Latin literature have survived from this period.


3. Greek and Roman history from 219 to 146 B.C.

The Greek historian Polybius wrote the definitive history of the period down to 146 B.C.; he was actively involved in Greek politics from 181 B.C. onwards, and he had influential friends at Rome who provided him with their memories of earlier events. Polybius introduced the concept of "universal history", covering the whole of the known world, so that from this time onwards many of the sources contain both Greek and Roman history. Unfortunately only Books 1-5 of Polybius' history have survived intact, covering the years down to 216 B.C; but there are numerous fragments from the others books, which are especially important for the history of the Greek world during the later years.

Later historians derived a large part of their accounts from Polybius, either directly or indirectly. Most of Livy's history of Rome during this period has survived; Books 21-30 contain his dramatic account of the war against Hannibal, and Books 31-45 continue the story of Rome's increasing domination of the Greek world down to 167 B.C. The Periochae of Books 46-52 give a summary of Livy's account of the years 166-146 B.C.

Appian has preserved much information from the lost books of Polybius, in his history of the Roman conquests; particularly in his books on the wars in Syria, in Spain, in Africa, and against Hannibal. The story of Hannibal's invasion of Italy naturally attracted many Roman writers. The strangest account is an epic poem written over 250 years later by Silius Italicus; it is the longest and by common consent one of the worst poems in the Latin language.

An entirely different perspective on this period, from the margins of the Greek world, is provided by the Books of Maccabees, which describe the heroic resistance of the Jews to the oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes, and the eventual establishment of an independent Jewish state.

Although Greek poets and scholars were still active during this period, little has survived of their writings. But we possess some fine examples of early Latin poetry, such as the comedies of Plautus and Terence, and some lines from the Annales, a patriotic epic composed by Ennius.


4. Greek and Roman history from 145 to 71 B.C.

After 146 B.C., we are once again left without any detailed historical narrative, although these years are full of interest because they saw the first upheavals that led to the fall of the Roman Republic. The only useful continuous account of the period is provided by Appian in Book 1 of his Civil Wars. Appian also wrote the only complete history of the Wars against Mithridates.

Plutarch is one of the most valuable sources for the history of this period, as he describes the turbulent lives of the individual leaders who were striving for domination within the Roman state: these lives include Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Marius, Sulla, Sertorius, and Lucullus.

The Roman historian Sallust is the main source for several episodes during this period; he wrote an account of the War against Jugurtha, and numerous fragments survive from his Histories, which covered the period 78-67 B.C. Slightly earlier than Sallust, Cicero, who started his public career in 81 B.C., made frequent references to the history of the years before 80 B.C., providing unique information about internal Roman politics at that time; but these references are scattered throughout the many volumes of Cicero's writings.

This is a barren period for Greek and Latin literature; we know the names of several writers who were admired by their contemporaries, but apart from Polybius their books have all perished. The most important Latin poet of the period was Lucilius; his Satires were a caustic commentary on Roman life at the end of the second century B.C.


5. Roman history from 70 to 30 B.C.

The primary sources become increasingly abundant as we approach the final years of the republic, and the dictatorship of Caesar. The major source for this period is Cicero, who vividly described his impressions of the history of his age, both in his speeches and in the two collections of his letters, the Letters to Atticus and the Letters to Friends. We also possess Caesar's personal account of his successful wars, the Gallic War and the Civil War.

Two later Greek writers provide a continuous history of the period: Dio Cassius in Books 36-45 of his Roman History, and Appian in Books 2-5 of his Civil Wars.

Biographies illuminate the characters of some of the leading men of the period. Plutarch wrote lives of Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Cato, Cicero, Brutus, and Antony; and Suetonius includes lots of entertaining details in his life of Julius Caesar.

Other writers provide details about particular episodes. Sallust wrote an account of Catiline's Conspiracy; Asconius wrote a historical commentary on the speeches of Cicero; Nicolaus of Damascus described the events leading up to the death of Caesar, in his Life of Augustus; and in the reign of Nero, Lucan wrote the Pharsalia, an full-scale epic poem about Caesar's civil war.

This was the first golden age of Latin poetry, and two very different masterpieces were published around 55 B.C. - De Rerum Natura (an impassioned defence of Epicurean philosophy) by Lucretius , and Carmina (love poems and other highly polished lyric poems) by Catullus.


6. Other literary sources

There are other sources that either contain references to events of various periods, or focus on one particular geographical area. Collections of stratagems were popular, nominally to provide examples for novice generals; we possess a book of Stratagems in Latin, written by Frontinus, and a book of Stratagems in Greek, written by Polyaenus. Miscellaneous collections of interesting anecdotes were compiled by Valerius Maximus, in his Memorable Doings and Sayings, and by Aelian in his Historical Miscellany.

Josephus provides a great deal of important information about Jewish history in his Jewish Antiquities, particularly in the period between the Old and New Testaments, for which he used consulted some previous historians, whose works have not survived. On a smaller scale, Memnon wrote an excellent summary of the changing fortunes of one Greek colony, in his History of Heracleia. Strabo wrote a more general Geography of the known world, in which he often included brief summaries of the notable events and persons associated with the cities and regions that he was describing.

Soon after the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire, Eusebius of Caesarea composed a Chronicle of sacred and secular history. The chronicle has not survived in its original form, but it had a lasting influence on Byzantine writers, and several Greek chronicles are derived from it, in varying degrees.

Although it was not compiled until the late 10th century A.D., the Suda (sometimes called Suidas) is a rich store of Byzantine scholarship, with entries on a vast range of topics. The Suda on Line project, which has made it easily available for the first time, is one of the major achievements of scholarship on the web. However, because of the risk of errors creeping in over the centuries, the details in the entries should be treated with some caution.


7. Documents

Non-literary documents - primarily inscriptions, papyri and coins - provide a wealth of information for all aspects of the history of the Hellenistic world, and have enabled modern historians to reconstruct the outline of events, which are not adequately described by the surviving ancient historians.

Recently, a huge number of these documents have been made available online in the original language. Over 79,000 papyri are available at papyri.info, although most of them date to the period of the Roman and Byzantine empires. The Epigraphische Datenbank Clauss-Slaby contains a staggering total of 432,666 inscriptions in their original Latin text, and there is a growing collection of Greek inscriptions provided by the Packhard Humanities Institute. There is also a good selection of Babylonian chronicles online, although these are mostly concerned with religious and astronomical matters, and only occasionally mention political events.

Several thousand of the papyri have been translated into English; a good place to start is Select Papyri, which contains a wide range of examples of different types of papyri. Many inscriptions of this period are now available in translation online: this website holds translations of over 500 Latin inscriptions, and a Concordance of Hellenistic Greek Inscriptions with links to over 1,400 Greek inscriptions. But some important Greek inscriptions are not yet available online, and it is still recommended to get hold of a copy of Michel Austin's excellent sourcebook, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest; or, for inscriptions that illustrate the expansion of Roman influence in the Greek world, Rome and the Greek East to the death of Augustus, by Robert Sherk.


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